ElAnt v3n4 - REVIEWS - Einfuehrung in die Georgische Sprache

Volume 3, Number 4
April 1996

Einfuehrung in die Georgische Sprache

Kita Tschenkeli,
Amirani Verlag, Zurich (1958), 2 vols.
pp. xiv, 628 and x, 614


A. Treloar,
Department of Classics and Ancient History,
University of New England,
NSW 2351,
email: c/o Electronic Antiquity

To review now a book of which the copyright date is 1958 may seem tardy. However, this excellent book seems to have received less attention than it deserves since its publication.

The story of its publication is itself interesting and reflects on the vaunted civilisation of the West.

The author , Nikita Tschenkeli, held an appointment at Hamburg before the war. His classes in Georgian were attended by some of Germany's leading linguists. They encouraged him to prepare his course for publication. However, in 1943 the bombing of Hamburg destroyed his manuscript, a severe blow, but Gomme lost his MS during his war-time duties and Lawrence lost his in an absent-minded moment after the First World War. Their losses were made good by the latter's memory and the former's library. In the bombing of Hamburg, Tsch. lost not only his MS, but his valuable collection of books in Georgian and Russian with the rest of his library and in fact all his worldly goods. There was no way to replace Georgian and Russian publications at that time.

In 1945 Tsch. found refuge from the appalling destruction of German cities and universities in a teaching appointment in Switzerland, and had the courage to begin his work afresh.

But he was severely handicapped by the irreplaceable loss of his library. Libraries in the West lacked his carefully chosen works in Georgian and Russian. Photo-copying was not easy to arrange in the immediate post-war era. Even visits to America failed to find what he lacked in Western Europe.

A further difficulty confronting him was the widespread ignorance concerning the nature of the Georgian language and the value of its literature and culture. A further problem was to find a printer able to print in Georgian. These two difficulties were compounded when a learned man suggested that if Tsch. could not find a Georgian fount he should print in Armenian, while another asked gravely whether Georgian was still printed in Cyrillic.

Readers of a classical journal may well wonder whether any of this has any relevance to classical studies. Georgian is in fact more relevant than it may appear, at least to those interested in Comparative Philology and the historical development of Greek.

The Nostratic theory[ 1 ] recognises the Caucasian family of languages as one of the six making up the Nostratic group. Geographically Caucasian has a central place in this group and Georgian is the best known language of the family with a recorded history extending back to early Christian times. Georgia converted to Christianity in 325, but the literature began before this. Quite apart from Comparative Philology Georgian has importance as one of the earliest Christian Languages.

Even those who remain doubtful about the Nostratic Theory cannot deny the more direct relevance of Georgian as a possible influence on the development of Greek. Geography, Greek myth and recent linguistic studies suggest that there is a connexion between Greek and Caucasian even if only in the form of loan words[ 2 ] but on the Nostratic theory there is a case for inherited forms that offer more attractive etymologies for some Greek words than the traditional Indo-European hypothesis.

There is therefore a case for the study of Georgian by classical scholars. However, the language is admittedly difficult, but not so difficult as was suggested by one of Tsch.'s contacts who believed that all Georgian verbs were irregular. Nor have the difficulties been well met by the books available in the best known Western languages.

Even in Georgia there has been some argument on what constitutes correct Georgian. Under Imperial Russia the language was suppressed and banned from use in education and government until the Revolution brought a degree of liberalism at least in language, since the Soviet régime encouraged linguistic minorities to use and publish in their own languages and in many cases across Siberia to give a written form to the spoken language for the first time.

Under Soviet rule the Georgians had to decide which spoken dialect was to be considered correct Georgian. There was a significant difference between the more conservative form spoken in the East and that belonging to the West of the country.

As a result handbooks in Georgian and Russian were produced, but like so much of the linguistic work of Soviet scholars these were neither well known nor readily available to Western scholars, as Tsch. found when he set about re-writing his great work.

For it must be considered a great work when compared with the inadequate introductions otherwise available in Western languages.

Tsch. believes that one must approach Georgian from the modern living language and work back to the older forms of the language.

His work in two substantial volumes is planned so that the reader may teach himself, although it is evident that the help of a native speaker would be necessary for anyone aspiring to speak the language.

The work comes in two volumes not only because of its size, but also to make a distinction between the theoretical first volume and the practical second volume which can easily both be open before the student as he works his way through the course.

The first volume contains a series of lessons which vary in length depending on the difficulty and importance of the grammatical matter being introduced. In the second volume each lesson is matched by an exercise which is designed to test the student's skill at reading, speaking and writing the language.

He is thus able to instruct himself not only in the forms of the classical language, but also in modern conversational Georgian. Tsch. also provides a plate showing how to write and connect the letters in written form.

Finally in the second volume there is a well-chosen collection of passages from Georgian literature ancient and modern including a short passage from Vepchis tqaosani. 'The Man in the Tiger skin', which is considered the masterpiece of Georgian literature, dating from the late 12th century early 13th century.

The work is a model introduction to the study of a language and the author has been well served by his publishers. Whatever the difficulties in finding it, the Georgian fount is clear and elegant and where necessary the significant new elements are picked out in bold type.

The work reflects the greatest credit on author and publisher and has filled a major gap in Western books on this most important, but neglected language.


[1] The acknowledged masterpiece on the Nostratic Theory is V.M. Illic-Svityc, 'Opyt Sravnenija Nostraticeskich Jazykov', Moscow. The first volume was published in 1971, but publication was then interrupted by the death of the author. However, his colleagues honoured a promise made in the first volume to complete the work and it now exists in three volumes, not that it is easy to obtain a copy in the West.

The credibility of the Theory rests on the comparative evidence published in the first volume, which is drawn from the six families of languages, Indo-European, Semitic, Finno-Ugrian, Altaic, Caucasian and Elamo-Dravidian. Comparison is made of those elements in language which are taken to be likely to belong to the earliest period of a language and not to be likely to be loan-words. (Of course, one can, as in any generalisation about language, think of exceptions to these apparently reasonable assumptions. So in English 'take', 'sky' and 'skill', which might seem to fall into this category are in fact Norse loan words). A strong case is made by the parallel columns comparing pronouns, names of parts of the body, names of relationships in the family, the elements in the sense of fire and water, nature, qualities and more telling even than these, structural elements in language, since these are much less likely to be borrowed than words. (But even here one is compelled to note that exceptions do exist, for instance Armenian has adopted as a plural ending -k, which is not Indo-European in origin, but seems somehow connected with Hungarian -k).

Illic-svityc is able to adduce evidence in all, or nearly all, of the six columns in so many cases that the Theory does require careful consideration. Recent theories that articulate human speech originated with 'homo sapiens' and that 'homo sapiens' emerged from Africa about 100,000 years ago make it possible to see how the distribution of the Nostratic languages might have come about. In all this Caucasian has a central position, but is perhaps less studied in the West than any other Nostratic family of languages.

A critical assessment of the Nostratic Theory depends on adequate knowledge of the six families of languages concerned.

[2] This raises the question of the Pelasgians well known in Greek legends, but should they now be seen as at least mediating some influence between Caucasian and Greek? This topic has naturally attracted the attention of Georgian and Russian scholars, but for a Western study see E.J. Furnee, Palaeokartvelisch-Pelasgische Einfluesse in den indo-germanischen Sprachen. The Hakuchi Press, Leiden, 1986, 238 pp., which includes a useful bibliography at pp. 17-21. As an example may be taken from p. 31 the following: Pelasg. *'zin'-/'zn'-'schaden': > Greek sinomai (*sin-yomai); Geo. 'znian-i' 'in einem muffigen Gefaess schlecht gewordener Wein' (noted ch.'Georgisch-deutsches Woerterbuch' (Zurich, 1960- 74) as 'veraltet'. On sinomai Frisk: "Wenn altererbt . . ."; Chantraine: "Demeure obscur". Furnee notes in an appendix at p. 219 Hollifield's proposed etymology connecting sinomai with Sanskrit tayu-'thief', but finds the phonetics of this unconvincing.

A. Treloar,
e-mail: c/o Electronic Antiquity

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 4 - April 1996
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606